3 Leadership Lessons from the Iraq War

I started writing thismonth’s eNewsletter article (“Building a Team Against the Problem”) beforerealizing that this month was the “end” of the Iraq war, with the troops (well,some of them) coming home. In reflecting on that war, there are three leadershiplessons that stand out and fit with this theme: First, Builda Team Against the Problem: Thereis a stark and important contrast between the very short “Gulf War” led byGeorge H.W. Bush (“H.W.”) 20 years ago and the “Iraq War” led by his son,George W. Bush (“W”) which has lasted over 8 years with over 4,000 U.S.soldiers dead, over 40,000 seriously injured (not counting mental injuries) andover 100,000 Iraqi’s dead. “H.W.” was an experienced diplomat who put a greatdeal of effort into building a true coalition of nations to carry out the Gulfwar, which stopped Saddam Hussein in his tracks and successfully contained him.“W,” on the other hand, took the opposite approach of refusing to listen to theprior coalition (not even consulting his father) and when nations such as Francewouldn’t join him he changed the name of “French Fries” to “Freedom Fries” inthe White House dining room. Without a team, the United States became isolatedin the world and seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Second,Don’t Think in Terms of Villains: International problems are much more complexthan heroes and villains. "W" thought in terms of villains and targeted SaddamHussein to be eliminated – a major step in changing the culture of conflict inthe world by justifying the elimination of one sovereign leader by anothercountry. When Saddam was finally captured and executed, it was barely a drop inthe bucket of the Iraq War. Yet the international tone had changed, with AlQueda and its sympathizers seeing Americans as people who could be targeted andeliminated. We need to remember the beheadings of Americans during the earlyyears of the war and the rapid growth of anti-American radicals in the MiddleEast. When leaders speak in terms of pure villains, it tends to change theculture into one of war at all levels of society. Even "W" said he realized thismany years later.

Third,Don’t See Yourself as a Hero: During the war planning, Donald Rumsfeld ("W"’sSecretary of Defense) saw himself as far superior to planners in the StateDepartment and other agencies. He cut them out of the serious planning. He alsoenvisioned the Iraqi people enthusiastically greeting the U.S. troops, evenbringing them flowers. According to journalist Bob Woodward, when his teamheard from an analyst who said that there was a serious risk of chaos after theinvasion, he disdainfully dismissed that point of view and it wasn’t evenconsidered in the war planning.

“W”heroically declared “Mission Accomplished” on an aircraft carrier in one of themost dramatic mistaken judgments of the war. While he was acquired a secondterm as President, he soon thereafter was vilified as incompetent and earnedone of the lowest ratings of a modern President before his term ended.

But thisis analysis is not just about “W.” President Obama – known to usually havecollaborative instincts – also appears to have succumbed to the allure ofworking as a hero without building a team. His healthcare initiative was hisidea, although he tried to build a team around the specifics of the plan. Buteven Charles Schumer, Democratic Senator from New York, commented in 2009 thatthis was not a priority for over 70% of Americans, who were satisfied withtheir healthcare plans and much more concerned about their jobs and their homes.So this allowed Obama to become an easy “target of blame” and much of the pastthree years has been spent with “Obamacare” being attacked by Republicanswithout enthusiastic defense from Democrats (many of whom would have muchpreferred a “single payor” plan).

Likewise,President Obama found and executed Osama Bin Laden. The American publicresponse was one of surprise and then almost disinterest. The Pakistaniresponse was bitter resentment and relations have not been the same. Why, whenthis seemed so important years ago?

Today, welive in a world of participation decision-making. A leader can’t go it aloneand expect the team to thank him. (It’s not surprising that the Occupy WallStreet movement made consensus decision-making a top priority.) You have tobuild a team against the problems that the team helps identify and the teamhelps implement. In the elections of 2012, hopefully we will learn theselessons and elect (at the city, state and federal levels) leaders who areteam-builders more than self-identified heroes against all the self-identifiedvillains.

High Conflict Institute provides training and consultations, as well and books, DVDs and CDs regarding dealing with High Conflict People (HCPs) in legal, workplace, educational, and healthcare disputes. Bill Eddy is the President of the High Conflict Institute and the author ofIt's All Your Fault!, Splitting, BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Hostile Emails, Personal Attacks and Social Media Meltdowns and Don't Alienate the Kids!. He is an author, attorney, mediator, and therapist. Bill has presented seminars to attorneys, judges, mediators, ombudspersons, human resource professionals, employee assistance professionals, managers, and administrators in 25 states, several provinces in Canada, France, Sweden, and Australia. For more information about High Conflict Institute, our seminars and consultations, Bill Eddy or to purchase a book, CD or DVD, visit: http://www.HighConflictInstitute.com